A solemn ceremony was held at NYSUT headquarters this morning honoring those who died in the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and remembering the responders who helped in the dusty days and weeks following the murders. As a group of singers sang "God Bless America " and "Solidarity Forever," their voices rose upward to where memories gather.
On this year's 15th anniversary of the attacks, former NYSUT President Tom Hobart remembers how that day unfolded.
"We were having an officers meeting, and were told a plane had hit the (Twin Towers). We thought another small plane had got lost," he said. "Then we were told there was another hit, and it was terrorism."
Teachers and school-related professionals, several of whom were honored later by NYSUT, hastily helped children out of nine nearby New York City schools, which had to be evacuated. Students and teachers ran and walked to safety as the towers crumbled. Many crossed the Brooklyn Bridge; some took ferries or buses; others were told to "run to the water" as debris filled the air. Students poured out of nearby Borough of Manhattan Community College and the School for the Deaf. SRPs helped children with disabilities – including several wheelchair-confined students who were carried on piggyback many, many blocks to safety. Some students stayed with teachers in their homes; some stayed overnight in schools with teachers because they had no way to get home as the city shut down after the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Other schools became emergency shelters.
"It was a very tragic time for America and we were part of that," Hobart said.
As the world tried to absorb the horrific intent and loss of innocent lives, police, firefighters, volunteers and other rescue workers rolled up their sleeves to help in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., where the attacks from commandeered airplanes took place.
Teachers, professors, nurses, psychologists and counselors who were NYSUT members volunteered to help, including visiting nurses who put on masks, walked through soot, and spent days on the sidewalks and rescue sites washing out people's eyes.
"They were out there on the rubble," said NYSUT reporter Ned Hoskin, Professional Staff Association, who wrote many articles about 9-11. "They were on the pile."
School psychologists and social workers spent time with students and teachers to work their way through complex emotions.
Retired NYSUT reporter Betsy Sandberg, PSA, traveled to the city and interviewed dozens of teachers, SRPs, students and volunteers in gripping coverage of the tragedy. Sandberg first went down on the train on Sept. 15th.
While the United Federation of Teachers has a strong assembly of reporters, "a number of the New York City reporters were traumatized, and also could not access any of their technology," said Sandberg, who made three different trips to the city, each one for four days. She went again for a week that December. Sandberg worked out of the UFT offices of New York Teacher magazine.
"Also, I called Deb Ward (communications director) several times and just talked and she took notes. Deb also came down one time," she said.
The most difficult aspects of the assignments, Sandberg said, were "Asking (photographer) Susan Lerner to take photos that were truly traumatic; and asking teachers, secretaries, the Coast Guard reservists, the National Guard teacher-members to relive what they had seen."
The people she interviewed in the most vulnerable time of their lives made an impression on Sandberg, who said she thinks of them often. She recalls, for example, "The teachers from PS 1 in Chinatown and the amazing work they did with kids who saw people flying from the sky like birds. There were anecdotes that were just too painful to make it into the article."
Coverage was provided extensively in two issues of New York Teacher, now called NYSUT United, in issues titled "Teach Your Children Well," (Sept. 26) and "Called to Serve" (Oct. 10).
Many of the reservists who were called into duty after the attacks were teachers. The head of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve was science teacher Tom Staats from Long Island, who had done four tours of Viet Nam. He asked Hobart to come down to New York to meet with his crew.
"He took me on a tour of the area. The American Express building had holes in the windows where bodies blew through them. They had flown off the roof of the World Trade Center as it collapsed. It was like walking through a cemetery where the bodies weren't interred," Hobart said.
Fires were still burning and ash still filled the air.
Hobart said he wore hiking boots for the tour, and then couldn't bring himself to wear them again for several years. It felt wrong.
"More than 3,000 people died when suicide hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Among the dead in New York were 634 union members, the majority of them New York City firefighters and police on the scene when the towers fell," reports www.unionist.com.
Staats was on site the day the bodies of 25 firemen were found in the rubble. It was October 1, three weeks after the attack, which is a stark reminder of the density of the rubble.
Hobart also met with a group of Marine Reservists from the Adirondacks who were NYSUT members.
Teacher reservist Laura Addison-Lamon of the Thousand Island Educators Association was called into action with the Vermont Air National Guard 158th Fighter Wing.
In the weeks and months following the attacks, BMCC reopened with classes in temporary trailers, although union faculty members reported continuous health problems from working alongside barges were debris was carted off each day to be dumped.
At today's 9-11 remembrance ceremony at NYSUT headquarters, it was announced that, according to the Center for Disease Control, there were 74,968 responders and survivors who are living in every state. Nearly 10,000 of them are participating in the National Program, which provides medical treatment, and mentoring for those who live outside the New York City area. "More than 65,000 responders are receiving medical monitoring to safeguard against emerging injuries; over 37,000 responders and survivors have at least one 9-11 condition and over two-thirds have more than one condition and a large number of those suffer from multiple injuries and illnesses."
NYSUT raised and disbursed $500,000 through a 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund, including $47,021 for school supplies. The organization launched the fund with a $100,000 contribution; local unions, student groups and union staff all donated by raising money from creative projects, including making and selling stars. NYSUT's Social Services professional staff was available to help members with social work needs.
To read about just one example of teacher efforts in the years following the attacks, read this NYSUT United story about memorial sculptures.
The New York State Museum in Albany holds the largest World Trade Center collection in the country. Visit www.nysm.nysed.gov/wtc.
Photo by Nicole Clayton.